Manon Lescaut review – Puccini’s desert tragedy gets a surreal rainbow revamp

<span>Gleaming delivery … Jenny Stafford as Manon with Edward Hawkins as Geronte, centre, in Manon Lescaut at Hackney Empire.</span><span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Gleaming delivery … Jenny Stafford as Manon with Edward Hawkins as Geronte, centre, in Manon Lescaut at Hackney Empire.Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The thing you really, really need to know about Manon Lescaut before the curtain goes up on English Touring Opera’s new production is that the heroine of Puccini’s opera is going to die of thirst. That idea does a lot of heavy lifting in Jude Christian’s staging. Designed by Charlotte Henery, act one opens in an empty swimming pool with water coolers standing like sentinels around the edge. In act two, the newly sugar-daddied Manon relaxes in a padded pink bath while watching images of splashing liquid on TV. In the final scene, with Manon and her equally doomed lover exiled in the Louisiana desert, it’s almost inevitable that Des Grieux will be flinging empty water-cooler canisters around in ridiculous despair.

Another thing to pay attention to at curtain-up is the sleeping figure slumped over a work desk. “The opera reads to me like a surreal nightmare and so that’s how I’ve chosen to stage it,” writes Christian in the programme – and if that sounds slightly defensive it’s not surprising, as this playful all-a-dream staging doesn’t do nearly enough storytelling.

What we get is a rainbow-coloured stageful of archly knowing chorus characters with a vaguely animal theme – they bounce like bunnies, and worship riches in the form of shiny model dogs – against which the main characters move in a kind of neutral relief, singing lines in Christian’s own translation that are occasionally insightful but often jarring. White-suited Des Grieux, the tenor hero, arrives riding a statue of a dolphin. Manon herself, dressed in beige bodycon with an electric blue wig and looking almost like a shop mannequin, remains a blank slate, whether in a palace or a prison. Nobody invites audience sympathy, and nobody gets any.

In the pit, Gerry Cornelius conducts a slimmed-down version of the score that’s played with relish if, initially at least, not ideal polish; the best comes in the final act, where the players conjure up the heat haze of the desert.

It’s good to see English Touring Opera continuing to build a company of singers – several of the soloists, including Aidan Edwards’s smarmy Lescaut, Edward Hawkins’s baleful Geronte and Brenton Spiteri’s pointed Edmondo, are returning from previous seasons. As for the central pair, Jenny Stafford sings gleamingly as Manon and Gareth Dafydd Morris brings a burnished tenor to Des Grieux. There’s no chemistry between them, but perhaps that’s the point.

Christian, who directed the premiere of Tom Coult’s opera Violet at Aldeburgh in 2022, has previously reimagined Shakespeare through a feminist prism. It’s not impossible to use a canonic opera score to do something similar for this art form – Barrie Kosky managed it with his iconoclastic version of Carmen at the Royal Opera - but Puccini’s fifth-best-known opera is probably not familiar enough to take it, nor is this staging focused enough to deliver.

• At Theatre Royal, Norwich, 9 March, then touring until 27 May.